Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 21, 2010 8:46 am 
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Yes, no, maybe

Published on Cinescene.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach, whose best-known features are The Squid and the Whale and Margot at the Wedding, has specialized in spoiled middle-class American intellectual types. His Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) is spoiled alright, and also a pretty complete loser. He was a musician, but forced his band to break up by refusing to accept a recording opportunity. Then he went east and turned to carpentry. Now about to turn forty, he comes out west to Hollywood to house sit at his rich brother's place after being hospitalized for a mental breakdown. The importance he carries around is nothing but his own self-inflicted complexity. He hasn't done anything worth doing, not for some time anyway. And that's his appeal, perhaps. He's like so many of us.

Greenberg is directionless but rich in detail. When its protagonist arrives as his brother is leaving with wife and kids for a vacation in Vietnam, there's a delicious disorder in the front hallway, with the brother and his wife shouting greetings and directions, a dog named Mahler, and the kids hanging on the stairs and chattering loudly. Later Baumbach brilliantly orchestrates a sudden big party young people put on in the house where Greenberg is the only older person. This is also an opportunity for Stiller to get physical -- something he's arguably better at as an actor than psychological portraiture -- when he does a line of coke, drinks some hard liquor, and starts jiving and hopping around like a fool.

The film, for all its keen observation, would be unwatchable were it not for the mumblecore diva Greta Gerwig, a pretty but modest-seeming blond who's very easy in front of a camera. It's a fresh bit of business for Baumbach to put a hugely bankable star next to someone so ultra-indie. The two characters are good foils too: she's open and vulnerable; he's shut-down and negative. Gerwig plays Florence, the assistant of Phillip, Roger's brother, who wanders in and out, ostensibly to watch out for Mahler (who suddenly develops complicated and expensive health problems), but also because she finds Roger fascinating and attractive. Obviously she is a bad judge of men and a sucker for lousy relationships. Greenberg's behavior to her is approach-avoidance. He flirts with her and then rejects her, repeatedly. But he's not sure he doesn't like-love her; he even wanders in to an open mike evening to hear Florence do a half-hearted vocal performance. He's interested, but as is his way, keeps sabotaging romance between himself and Florence, an idea perhaps doomed anyway. Or is it? Greenberg the film never moves toward the Hollywood denoument where the spatting couple turn out to be made for each other, or the seeming asshole morphs into a nice guy. Roger never morphs into any such thing. That's the solid appeal of Baumbach's devotion to specificity and honesty. Even if his protagonist hasn't really got much depth, he remains somehow resiliently himself, and he may turn out to be memorable.

This film has more warmth as well as more nastiness than the meandering, tiresome Margot at the Wedding, and at least tries to go into more depth on one character than the charming but slight coming-of-age prelude The Squid and the Whale. There are strong contributions from Baumbach spouse Jennifer Jason Leigh (who collaborated on the story), as a former girlfriend who firmly rejects Roger's suggestion that they might start things up again; and from Rhys Ifans as Ivan, Roger's (former) best friend and past musical associate --the sometimes rakish Ifans is very solid here as a man who's grown up.

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